Friday, March 30, 2012

Watching With Dismay The Children At Play


Every year, there appears to be a movie that my fellow critics appear to masturbate to.  In 2010 it was The Social Network, touted as the Citizen Kane of our generation.  In 2011, it was The Tree of Life, one of those films that believes itself to be deep.  In 2012, I find that one of the contenders to the title "Best Film of the Year" is The Hunger Games

I find it curious that because I have taken a different position from the majority of people, I'm condemned.  The Occupy Wall Street devotees among my friends delight in calling me an idiot for not going down to the nearest park and banging out "This is what democracy looks like" on a tin drum while demanding free driver's licences/IDs and school loan forgiveness.  The Tea Partiers I know are askance at my making even the most innocuous joke about Representative Ron Paul. Given that I have little interest in politics, I look upon both groups with a wry amusement mixed with puzzlement.

In the realm of film, I am more like the Paulistas and Occupiers: I brook no opposition.  I jest of course: people can disagree with me if they so like.  However, I make an effort to have some intellectual case for or against something, not just think something "sucked" because it "sucked" or something being "awesome" because it was "awesome".  

That being the case, I am displeased at the criticism I am getting from friends and even frenemies over my refusal to praise the film version of The Hunger Games.  Both said they were "not surprised".  One asked for a "show of hands" for those who were shocked at my voting down the film.

I replied I couldn't show him hands...but maybe I could show him fingers. 

It isn't the fact that they disagree with me that bothers me.  It's the fact that they think I disliked The Hunger Games MERELY to dislike The Hunger Games.  I don't set out to be contrarian, but I cannot say something was good when I didn't think so.  If I thought something didn't work, I say so: them's the gig. 

Well, I've already stated why I thought The Hunger Games as a film didn't work for me: the shaky camera work that is a bane of current cinematic experiences, a large story that is short-shifted to get to the next action piece (which allows for little character exploration) and a major cop-out that allows a character to live when we were led to believe he would probably die.  Now, I want to delve a little into the non-cinematic issues I had with The Hunger Games.

I should make it clear: this is not a criticism of Suzanne Collins' book because I haven't read it (silly me for wasting my time on such obvious junk as The Great Gatsby).  Whenever I review a film version of a novel that I have read, I try not to compare one with the other because one of my Golden Rules of Filmmaking is: The Movie Will Always Be Different From the Book.  For there to be a true adaptation of any book, it would probably require a television series/miniseries (and the chance of something being completely faithful to the source material is highly unlikely).  Therefore, I cannot judge the success or failure of The Hunger Games on the book, and anyone who says "the book is better than the movie" is simply wasting time: I haven't read the book so I can't say whether it's good or bad.  That's not what I'm interested in; it's in the film that I concentrate on. 

The first point of contention with me is the idea that The Hunger Games is a thoroughly 'original' story.  I don't know anything about Battle Royale and care less.  Instead, I turn to an older source.

In all the commentaries about The Hunger Games, I have not noticed that any credit has been given to Ovid.   I got out my handy-dandy copy of Edith Hamilton's Mythology (the Citizen Kane of books on the Greek/Roman/Scandinavian gods and heroes) and went back to the story of Theseus.  Here, we see that the Athenians, as punishment for the death of a prince of Crete (and after Crete had defeated Athens in battle), must every nine years send seven boys and seven girls as tribute, where they would go into the Labyrinth to face the Minotaur (not, sadly, David Bowie's Goblin King), where, until Theseus came along, they met a grisly fate. 

Collins has given credit to this part of the Theseus legend as inspiration to the first part of her trilogy, but I haven't heard anyone else comment on the similarity between Theseus and Katniss.  I don't know why, but while I was watching, my mind couldn't help think of how The Hunger Games is a modern retelling and reshaping of the Theseus story. 

Oddly, another thing that came to mind was, of all things, the film Spartacus with Kirk Douglas as the title character.  It came from the training sequences in The Hunger Games (which are similar on the training to kill a fellow prisoner).  What crystallized this for me was when Katniss has her bow and arrow and must show her skills before the Game Master Seneca and a group of "sponsors" in their balcony with a lavish meal. 

In Spartacus, a group of Romans comes to see a gladiator match at the training academy.  They select two of the gladiators to fight to the death: Draba (Woody Strode) and Spartacus.  They fight, and Spartacus is about to be killed.  The Romans demand Draba kill him.  Rather than do this, Draba throws his lance at the Romans and lunges towards them. 

Patrician Roman Senator Crassus (Laurence Olivier) does not flinch, but takes command, killing Draba. 

For me, Spartacus came to mind when Katniss shoots an arrow straight into the "sponsor's box" and directly into the apple inside the pig's mouth.  All that Katniss needed to do was jump up and kill everyone there.  Granted, we'd have a whole other movie if she did, but my mind could only think, "why didn't anyone else try this little deal in the 74 years the Hunger Games have been going on?"

Still, I can hear people say, "that's no reason to dislike The Hunger Games".  True (even if such things had my mind wandering).  What I had a hard time in regards to The Hunger Games are two things that I find so irritating in films and books: another Greek invention, the Deus Ex Machina. 

For those who don't know what a Deus Ex Machina (or DEM as I call it) is, a DEM is whenever something will suddenly appear that will get the character out of whatever jam he or she is in.  This was one of my chief criticisms of the Harry Potter series.  Harry rarely had to do anything himself because something would come along to get him out of his predicament.  One DEM I recall particularly well was in Chamber of Secrets, where in the climatic battle between Harry and You-Know-Who, we got THREE: 1). the Phoenix, 2.) the Sword of Gryffindor inside the Sorting Hat brought by 1.), and 3.) the tears of 1.). 

Likewise, Katniss has a few good DEMs popping her way.  The biggest (and lousiest) DEM is the rule change in the middle of the actual Games, where the tributes are told that this year, there can be TWO winners rather than one if both come from the same district (I asked my brother Gabe, who went with me to The Hunger Games, to confirm if that was what he heard, which he did). 

I simply cannot emphasize just what a lousy decision this was in terms of story.  Knowing that there can be only two (sorry Highlander), we no longer fear for Peeta and are faced with a near total-absolution of Katniss for being part of a game that has kids killing kids.

Therefore, we not only lose any actual tension to the ramifications of Katniss having to kill this sweet baker's son (who once showed her kindness and may be in love with her), but we also know that Peeta will live to see another book.  I can't fear for someone I know will survive and can't feel for someone who will no longer have to face the terrible prospect of having to kill at least one person to survive. 

I call it a major cop-out and a cheat, and yes, a Deus Ex Machina.

There are other versions of DEM.  If she's injured, a little balloon will be sent to her with balming solution to heal her.  I know the Hunger Games fans (should I call them Mockers for Mockingjay I wonder) will say that these are care packages sent by the sponsors to keep their tributes alive for as long as possible.  However, my argument would be as far as we know there is no financial incentive to keep someone like Katniss alive (no one on screen is seen making bets on who will live and die) and oddly enough, despite all the talk about getting 'sponsorship', we never actually see Katniss, Peeta, or any of the other tributes actively seeking "sponsorship".  This thread (no pun intended) is introduced, talked a lot about, but never followed through: a terrible disservice in my view.

Moreover, we are told that Districts 1 and 2 are wealthier and that their tributes have received much training before the three days the tributes as a whole are given.  I kept wondering if Districts 1 and 2 are better off than Districts 11 and 12 (the homes of Rue and Katniss/Peeta respectively), why not simply bribe the Capital to either let their kids go or rig the Games to their advantage?  Are Districts 1 and 2 places where the warped Hunger Games are embraced, even perhaps enjoyed?  I would have liked to have seen how The Reaping (the selection of the tributes, which is an annual event in Panem) was done in the other districts.  Given that Districts 1 and 2 could afford to give their tributes massive amounts of training, I imagine they volunteered, or at the most there was an air of celebration rather than terror. 

Naturally, we weren't going to get that in The Hunger Games, because frankly all the other kids were going do die.  Therefore, they weren't important. 

Here is where I'm going to do something The Hunger Games cannot or will not do: go for the jugular.  The Hunger Games wants to have it both ways: make us think on how horrible it is to see children kill other children but covering up the violence at the same time.  It's a strange thing: on the one hand, we're suppose to believe the Hunger Games are almost 'must-see tv' in Panem (even though from what I saw of the film, watching isn't compulsory and few people in the Capital appear interested...perhaps after 74 years, the population wants new programs) and that the population is deeply riveted by the slaughter of the innocents.  On the other, the film cannot show just how gruesome it all is without getting at the least an R rating (cutting into profitability).  Somehow, the killing of children by children (even if it is teens) isn't what I call a good-time viewing experience. 

Here is where I'M calling "hypocrisy".  Didn't so many of you, who say "you can't show teenagers, even those loathsome District 1 and 2 types, break a minor's neck", delight in the adventures of Hit-Girl in Kick-Ass?  You thought it was fine that a then-eleven/twelve-year-old Grace Moretz was killing, literally killing, men larger and older than herself on screen.  Therefore, why not allow us to see the full horror of the Hunger Games by showing us the kids stab, behead, spear, or blow up other kids?  You thought it was fine for Kick-Ass (which was rated R), so why not for the celebrated The Hunger Games (maybe the PG-13 rating so as to capture the larger teen market, rather than moral scruples, had something to do with it). 

What exactly is the difference between Hit-Girl's antics and the actions of the Hunger Game participants?  The ones who survive the opening slaughter (minus Rue, Katniss, and Peeta) are all suppose to be "evil" because they are good at what they've been trained to do (and because they want to kill the "good guys").  However, no one in the story (and I imagine the audience) ever stopped to wonder if THEY wanted to do the killing or whether they were so worn down emotionally that they felt they had no choice.  The Hunger Games paradoxically plays to the emotion of seeing teens kill tweens and pulls its punches.  Therefore, rather than show things through Katniss' eyes (so we react to her reactions and can imagine the horror--always more effective in my view), we get quick glimpses of this wholesale slaughter without having to get our hands and eyes dirty. 

Let me make this clear: I DON'T WANT TO SEE KIDS KILLING KIDS, ESPECIALLY IN THE GRUESOME MANNER THE HUNGER GAMES PORTRAYS.  If, however, you're going to make that a central part of the story, to focus on the horror of this spectacle, why give little hints?  Why not go all the way? 

I think it is because at heart, no one wants to see such things, not even those in the Districts or the Capital.  No one, as I've said before and as far as I know, HAS to watch the Games, and the viewers sure aren't getting any enjoyment (District 11 in fact, has the first hints of an uprising, what I call the District 11 Spring). 

To my mind, there is something perverse in seeing an eleven-year-old getting speared (as well as an eleven-year-old killing grown men).  Now, the Mockers will defend this, saying that I'm suppose to be revolted by it all.  By that kind of thinking, shouldn't I also be revolted by seeing those from Districts 1 and 2 die by poisoned fruit, wasp stings, and ravenous dogs?  Shouldn't I feel that their deaths are equally grotesque, or is somehow OK that they died (rather barbarically I might add) because they were keeping Peeta and Katniss apart or wanted them dead? 

Aren't their lives equally worthy? 

The Mockers want to have it both ways: they want us to be horrified by the killing in the Hunger Games but don't want to show us the full horror of the Hunger Games so that we won't feel so bad about praising something that has remarkably little regard for life.  This, I suspect, is why we don't need to know the twenty-some-odd other tributes from Districts 3-10: they are perfectly disposable.  Somehow it's all right that they die because they aren't real, they aren't important. 

In short, The Hunger Games is totally hypocritical.  It celebrates the violence it claims to be condemning.  It does this because it asks us to root for Katniss, which means that she more than likely has to kill others ranging from 12 to 18. Their lives aren't important, especially since we never bothered to get to know them. Somehow then, it might even be all right if Katniss kills: she did it to survive, but woe to whomever manages to kill or injure Katniss.  If anyone did that, they aren't worthy of sympathy or celebration. 

The story goes out of its way to absolve Katniss of actually having to do any kind of killing: most of the unimportant kids from the other districts are dispatched within five minutes of the opening of the Games with nary a thought, and someone or something (those lovely DEMs) will come along to take care of the rest. 

There are only two kills that Katniss has (one of which is debatable): when she drops the Tracker Jackers on the "bad kids", and when she shoots her bow at the one who just speared Rue.  Fortunately for Katniss, when she comes across the girl who died from the Tracker Jacker stings, Katniss herself is affected by their hallucinatory stings, so we don't get the full visual impact of that girl's death.  Soon enough, we forget about this girl from that district.

Other people that have to die are conveniently killed off screen or by others.  Even Peeta, whom we would think must die so that she can live, we already know will be spared (not speared). 

I think that because I'm able to stay emotionally removed from what is on the screen (most of the time), I didn't get so involved in The Hunger Games to where I waited to hear the cannon signal the death of another tribute.  Whether my lack of emotion is a blessing or a curse I leave to you, but I think it has helped me be a better film reviewer in that I can observe a film coolly and dispassionately (most of the time).  Sometimes I do get caught up in a story, which to me is a hallmark of a great film. This was not the case with The Hunger Games, one that I felt was making things easier for the main character, rather than harder (physically and emotionally), one that took a long time to set up and have very little payoff in the end (Good News: Both Katniss and Peeta LIVE). 

Curiously enough, if I had made The Hunger Games, I would have changed a few things: I would have taken the time to build up Katniss' world, the tension of The Reaping, the training, and gotten to know the tributes far more (thus making their deaths more painful emotionally for the audience).  I also would have shown the citizens participate more in the Games: either in their delight or disgust.  Finally, I would have dumped Gale, focused more on Peeta/Katniss, and kept the games moving (nothing slows down a chase more than spending a night up a tree). 

I don't think we need to see the violence involved in the Hunger Games.  I find that what one can imagine is far worse than what one is shown.  A good off-screen scream as the girl is stung to death (along with horrified reactions) would have had a greater impact than seeing her disfigured face (even if camera tricks kept the full horror of it to a minimum).  Therefore, as gruesome as the idea of killing kids is, I think the middle road The Hunger Games took (show a little but just enough to sanitize it for the teen rating) was wrong, almost immoral. 

In conclusion (I hear cheers from the audience) I know The Hunger Games is being praised high and low by critics of both films and books.  However, I found how the film wanted me to be appalled at the violence-for-pleasure theme but refused to show us the extent, emotionally and physically, of said violence totally hypocritical. 

Something Gabe said stuck with me: it was, he said, like watching Halo.  Perhaps this is why I am in the minority about being disturbed by all this.  I don't play Halo.

Perhaps you'll be tempted to say I take all this too seriously.  To that, I offer this retort:

Or this...

or this...

These are real kids, really killed.  Look upon that horror and tell me if you find it entertaining. 

These are real Hunger Games, brought to you by Syria and their esteemed "reformer" Bashar Assad and his wife Asma.  It's not kids killing kids, it's adults killing kids.  The Hunger Games are very much alive, so forgive me if I don't celebrate the idea of children being killed or a film that won't acknowledge just how ugly that can be. 


  1. Are you, a critic, getting defensive about being criticized? You are criticized not for having a different opinion. You are criticized for deliberately and maliciously misrepresenting the things you attack. And then when you are taken to task for what you've said, you become spritely evasive hiding non-sequitur clichés and statements.

    You're a critic: It's what you're supposed to do. Are you supposed to that to your friends?

    1. Please make your case, and make it brief.


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